Well, here we are. The last day of another year. Or at least it will be when you’re reading this. I don’t think any of us quite expected that 2021 would be even more exhausting than 2020. In fact I’m not sure any of us thought that it was possible to be even more tired than we were last year. And yet. At the end of 2020, with vaccines against covid arriving I think we all thought that by the end of 2021 things would be back to normal again. And now, we’re all wondering if things will ever be normal again. But you have to hold on to something don’t you, and I’m holding onto the fact that I’ve now been jabbed and boosted, we did go on holiday (twice!) this year and that I made it back into the theatre as well. So I’m still in a better place than this time last year – even if omicron is causing some problems right now. Consider this the pandemic evolution of the old Obsessions of the year posts.
I think that the general ennui of 2021 can be seen in my reading habits. I’ve read slightly less books than I read last year – but then in March I traded in my commute to London to a short walk to the spare room when I changed jobs and lost my train reading time. I only had about a month and a half of regularly being back in the office this autumn but I never really got back to my regular nights away from home for work – so I lost that reading time in the evening too.
I’ve also read a lot less physical books this year than you would expect considering that I’ve been at home so much with so much access to my to-read bookshelf. But then I have grown somewhat obsessed with my kindle streak in recent months and you know what I’m like when I get something in my head. And of course it continues to be much easier to binge a series by clicking on the buy next button on Kindle and reading it straight away than it is to wait for the next one in the series to turn up.
I have re-read a lot this year – some books more than once. And I only allow a book to count on the list once each year – even if I’ve read – or listened to it more than once. And if we were including those in the list we’d be way over last year’s total because I’ve done most of the Peter Wimsey cannon more than once, along with a lot of the Amelia Peabody books, several of the Inspector Alleyns and my favourite Georgette Heyers.
And that leads me on to another of the trends of the latter part of this year – my retreat into the familiar. I think I said last year that I was spending a lot of time reading romance and cozy crime because I knew that they would work out already in the end. But since the summer I’ve been listening to the same audiobooks over and over again. I think after nearly 2 years of pandemic living I’ve started clinging to the familiar in the same way that I frequently do the ironing watching the same Miss Marples or Inspector Alleyns that I’ve watched dozens of time before. And that’s how we got to a point where I wrote a magnum opus about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Amid the flurry of end of year posts, here is something completely different and that has been months in the making. It’s taken me a while to get this down in writing in a way that I’m anywhere near happy with and I’m still not sure I’m quite there. So why am I finally posting it now? Well, I was writing my end of 2021 post and it was starting to touch on some similar ground, so I thought I ought to get this out there first.
One of my very earliest posts on this site was about my love of Peter Wimsey. And over the years since then I have reread and relistened to the series over and over. But until the summer it had been years since I had Gaudy Night – in full at least and not as a radio play. But then I treated myself to the audiobook in August and listened to it. And I was enjoying it so much that I got the book off the shelf too. And then I realised that I was behind on my podcasts because I wanted to carry on listening to Gaudy Night rather than listening to them. And when I got to the end, I started all over again. And now I have a lot to say about it and Spoilers ahoy, not just for Gaudy Night but for most of the rest of the Wimsey books. Be warned.
A reminder, if you need it, that Gaudy Night is the third of four books featuring Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. It is the book where Harriet’s relationship with Peter moves towards a resolution. The final book of the quartet sees the pair get married and Gaudy Night is the bridge that explains how they got from the tetchiness of the murder at Wilvercombe (which was already a step on from her mistrust and confusion in Strong Poison) to a point where Harriet has realised that she is in love with him and that taking a chance on another relationship might be the right thing to do.
She fell a victim to an inferiority complex, and tripped over her partner’s feet. ‘Sorry,’ said Wimsey, accepting responsibility like a gentleman. ‘It’s my fault,’ said Harriet. ‘I’m a rotten dancer. Don’t bother about me. Let’s stop. You haven’t got to be polite to me, you know.’
Worse and worse. She was being peevish and egotistical. Wimsey glanced down at her in surprise and then suddenly smiled.
‘Darling, if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock.’
‘Idiot’ said Harriet.
Have His Carcase
I have had the audiobooks of a lot of the other books in the series for years. In fact Busman’s Honeymoon was one of my earliest picks on Audible and I soon picked up as many of the others as I could that were read by Ian Carmichael. But he didn’t read all of them, so I filled in the gaps using radio adaptations of the series – again starring Ian Carmichael as Peter. I had Murder Must Advertise read by someone else, and Five Red Herrings read by Patrick Malahide (in a delightful crossover with my love of the Inspector Alleyn TV adaptations) but until thus summer I didn’t have either Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night in full on audio. But as I was working through audiobooks at some pace, I decided to take a chance on the Have His Carcase that Audible were offering. Now I have reread Have His Carcase a few times – because I think it’s a particularly well worked mystery – but I’d stuck to the radio play version because of my attachment to Ian Carmichael narrating. But actually after a little bit I got used to Jane McDowell, and although the code breaking section makes no sense to me as audio (it’s hard enough on paper), because it was told from more Harriet’s side than Peter’s the female narrator grew on me. So I bought Gaudy Night.
The thing it is easy to forget reading now is that Sayers spaced out the Peter and Harriet with other novels with just Peter and the poor readers at the time had no idea what was going to happen – if anything – between them. So when you realise Strong Poison (1930) was followed by Five Red Herrings (1931), it adds the context that perhaps the reason Peter has gone off to Scotland is perhaps to clear his head after Harriet’s trial. Have His Carcase is next (1932), when Harriet finds a body on the beach and Peter comes down to solve the crime (as she thinks) but also as the reader knows, try and make her situation better. Then it’s Murder Must Advertise, which focuses on Peter in his advertising alter ego but with a blink and you’ll miss it nod to what is going on with Harriet.
Wimsey put down the receiver. ‘I hope,’ he thought, ‘she isn’t going to make an awkwardness. You cannot trust these young women. No fixity of purpose. Except, of course, when you particularly want them to be yielding.’
He grinned with a wry mouth, and went out to keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him, and what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story.
Murder Must Advertise
Then the following year was the Nine Tailors before (at last) Gaudy Night in 1935. And early in Chapter 4 of Gaudy Night, Sayers sets out for you what has been going on in the background all along. I’m struggling to think of another series with a moment quite like it – where an author says “by the way, while these mysteries were going on, there was also something I didn’t tell you about”.
Was it too late to achieve wholly the clear eye and the untroubled mind? And what, in that case, was she to do with one powerful fetter which still tied her ineluctably to the bitter past? What about Peter Wimsey?
And then across the course of 500 pages, Harriet tries to solve a poison pen mystery at her old college, but decide exactly what about Peter Wimsey. She works her way through her hang ups after her disastrous relationship with Philip Boyes and starts to come to a better understanding of who she is and what it is about her that has caused Wimsey to propose to her once a quarter for years on end. And the reader understands him better for it too.
I have listened to the radio play version of Gaudy Night more times than I care to count, because even though Ian Carmichael is really quite old by that point, he doesn’t sound it and it is such a clever mystery as well has having a great setting in Oxford. But as I listened to it unabridged, I realised both how cleverly that radio adaptation had been done and how much had been taken out from the original novel. Reggie Pomfret’s whole plot strand is neatly snipped out and part of the evolution of Harriet’s feelings goes with it. And because it is a radio play you also lose the internal side of Harriet’s world and of course the glorious set up explaining what had been going on in the background with Harriet and Peter was missing too – because how on earth do you jump through a time line like that in a radio play?
After I finished Gaudy Night, I bought the Jane McDowell Busman’s Honeymoon and listened to that as well for the contrast with the Carmichael that I have listened to so many times. And it was interesting, but then I went back to Gaudy Night again. And again.
And so here we are, several months on. And I’ve probably listened to it in full half a dozen times. And my edited highlights half a dozen more: that chapter four description of the three years between Wilvercombe and Harriet’s return to her old college for the Gaudy. Her first encounter with St George and her subsequent discoveries about Peter’s relationships with his family – and then Peter’s reaction to that. His arrival in Oxford and their afternoon on the river. The chess set. The resolution of the mystery. The resolution. What it is about Gaudy Night that means it is what my brain needs at the moment I don’t know. But it is.
I’ve written bits and bobs here about the pandemic, but it’s been a rotten nearly two years for everyone. And it turns out that my brain had decided that the best way to get away from what’s happening in the real world and to help it relax, is to listen to the same audiobooks over and over again. Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon. Sylvester. These Old Shades. Artists in Crime. Death in a White Tie. And that’s ok by me, even if it does mean I’m months behind on podcasts I previously listened to religiously. But hey. These aren’t normal times. As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve just written the longest thing I’ve ever put on this blog to dissect my obsession with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Now if you’ll excuse me, Harriet is trying to write a letter to Peter about St George…
Yes, we’re not quite at the end of the year yet, but we’re close enough that I’m feeling fairly safe in posting this. Of course now I’ve written that, I’ll undoubtedly read something new and amazing in the last three days of the year to upset the apple cart. But hey, wouldn’t that be a delightful surprise. Anyway, these are my picks for the best new books that I read this year – they’ve all been Book of the Week Picks – so there’s plenty more detail about all of them in those posts if you click the links.
Non Fiction: Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
This was actually quite a tough decision because I’ve read a lot of really good non-fiction books this year. Empire of Pain was a Book of the Week back in July, and it has really stuck with me. In fact, I originally borrowed it from the library, but I ended up buying it on Kindle as well so that the other people who share my Kindle account could read it too. THis is the story of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma – the company that invented OxyContin. I think it will be of interest to people who know very little about the US opioid epidemic as well as those who know a bit more to start with. It will probably make you quite cross though to say the least. If you want something that will make you less rage filled at lives lost or ruined, try one The Cult of We, about We Work, although the enormous amounts of money being thrown at so called unicorn-startups may also induce rage.
Mystery:Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q Subanto*
I’ve read a lot of mysteries this year, but not many of them were newly published. But Dial A for Aunties was a real treat – a farcical comedy murder mystery with a wedding setting to counteract the dark undertones of the premise of the heroine accidentally killing her blind date. I liked the inter-auntie bickering as well as the romantic subplot. The sequel – featuring Meddy’s wedding is due out in 2022 and I’m already looking forward to reading it.
Romance: Battle Royal by Lucy Parker
This is another fabulous enemies to lovers romance from Lucy Parker to start her new series. It’s got a grumpy stuffy hero with a glittery, sunshine heroine. Both have darkness and sadness in their pasts (more details on that in the BotW post), but they work out that they are perfect for each other without any stupid misunderstandings or problems that can be solved with a conversation. Also you have to love a romance set on a baking show – see also Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake.
Other Fiction:The Guncle by Steven Rowley
Depressed and drifting since his big TV role ended, lapsed actor Patrick thinks that having to look after his niece and nephew for the summer is the worst idea ever. They’ve lost their mum, he’s lost his sister and having them around isn’t going to help him deal with it all. Except that it does. It’s also funny and snarky and camp. And the kids don’t fall into the super-irritating trap that so many book children do. Just a delight -even if it might give you the sniffles It’s still a nightmare to get hold of in the UK though – but since I wrote about it in July, it’s got onto NPR’s best books of the year list (as well as the Goodread awards list), so hopefully that situation will improve in 2022.
Bonus pick:Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light by Helen Ellis
I didn’t quite know where to put this, because I haven’t read a lot of essay collections this year – and I haven’t read a lot of memoirs either, but i couldn’t do a best books post of this year without mentioning it. Helen Ellis’s latest essay collection is full of hilarious characters and incidents and makes you want to be in her friendship group – as long as she’s not going to write about you of course. I had this preordered ahead of it’s release – and it was BotW here the week it came out because I read it straightaway. It’s easier to get hold of than The Guncle, but it is a bit pricey as it’s still only in hardback here. It’s worth it though.
Here’s to plenty of new books to talk about in 2022!
Cheating again this week because I finished this on Monday, but really there is only so long you can recommend Christmas-themed books for and the first week of January is past that limit, but also seems a little early to be starting putting together the Christmas-themed books post for 2022, although to be fair, I have started it in the spring before!
The Christmas Card Crime is another of those charming British Library Crime Classics collections that I mentioned in my Christmas books post last week. So yes, it’s also slightly cheating to be picking this for BotW so soon after that post – although in fairness I did read the other one in November so it seems less recent to me! This has less of the names that the casual crime fan will have heard of and but many of them are regulars in the BLCC stable – like E C R Lorac and John Bude – and some of them are more towards the thriller/chiller end of the mystery spectrum. Most are good, a couple didn’t suit me but overall it was a nice way to spend a post-Christmas afternoon hiding from the rain. It should be noted that there is one story in here that overlaps with A Surprise for Christmas – and it’s one of the really good ones, so I was glad I had borrowed them both from Kindle Unlimited rather than bought them outright.
You can get The Christmas Card Crime as an actual paperback from the British Library shop or you can get it on Kindle – it will reappear on other platforms once it has rotated out of the KU selection.
Hands up anyone else whose Christmas didn’t quite work out as planned? Yes, quite a lot of us really isn’t there. Still in our case it could have been worse – there was only one positive test, and the rest of the family are still clear. For now. Anyway, it came at the end of a very, very busy week and consequently this week’s list is mostly the tail end of the 50 states challenge (I finished!) and then Christmas (or at least festive) themed novellas. But that was what I fancied reading, so it’s allowed! Onwards to the last few days of the year. Coming up this week we have the end of year extravaganzas – as long as I manage to write them all…
I’ve already recommended one Christmas book this week, but it’s that time of year – and here are some of my favourite festive reads for this year.
The Christmas Wedding Guest by Susan Mallery*
This is the first full length novel in Susan Mallery’s new series. I’ve written about the Fools Gold and Happily Inc series here previously and I love the increasingly bonkers concepts of the towns these series are set in: after doing a wedding-themed town, this time she’s come up with a Christmas-themed town. It’s mad but it sort of works and makes sense if you’ve read any/many/much of Mallery’s other series. This has two romances – with sisters each getting their Happily Ever After – one is a second chance with a high school boyfriend, the other gets a rock star. I sort of wish that she had picked just one and focused on that but I understand why it needed to be the way it is because of the time lines. My first Christmas book of the year and it was a good one – even if it’s utterly bonkers escapist wish fulfilment stuff!
A Surprise for Christmas
This is another of the British Library Crime Classics themed collections. They have several around Christmas now as well as others themed around things like trains, the seaside, animals and Sports. I’ve read a couple of the festive ones, and this is a particularly good set – it features some of my favourite Golden Age authors – Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh as well as GK Chesterton and a few others you may not have heard of. Some of the stories are longer than others – and sometimes you’ll wish they were longer (or shorter) than they actually are but I enjoyed reading it – particularly because it had an extra dose of my beloved Roderick Alleyn.
Home for a Cowboy Christmas by Donna Grant*
This is mostly here because I really liked the short story that makes up the last 30 percent of this. Home for a Cowboy Christmas is a romantic suspense story set on a ranch in Montana with a heroine on the run from the mob. As they spend time together on the ranch, they realise that they might be perfect for each other, if only Emmy can stay alive through the trial. It wraps up a bit quickly at the end and the hero is called Dwight (not a sexy name!) but it’s quite a good read. The short story at the end is a forced proximity, stuck in a snowy cabin story, which is exactly what I like for Christmas. The heroine is a big city laywer reeling from a breakup, the hero has some trust issues. Very little peril but a sweet story. I read it on the beach, but it would be lovely to curl up in front of a fire to as well.
If the Fates Allow by Rainbow Rowell
Reagan has actually quite enjoyed all the social distancing – she likes watching people from afar, not up close. But she’s heading to her grandfather’s for Christmas because she doesn’t want him to be alone any more than he already has been. Then she runs into the boy next door (from a distance) when she’s out on the garden and.. well. You need to read it. This is another short story – and it’s just a short story, not a collection and is really quite short. But it is charming so I’m giving it a place here – it’s in Kindle Unlimited so if you’re a member it’s not going to cost you anything either.
Her Pretend Christmas Date
This is Jackie Lau’s Christmas offering from *last* year – and features a blind date that goes really badly, but that somehow turns into a fake relationship to try and get the heroine’s family off her back. I liked the dynamic between Julie and Tom – and I particularly like the competitive Christmas activities they ended up doing against her sister and parents. At just over 100 pages it’s into novella territory rather than short story, but it’s lots of fun and very, very festive – gingerbread! Snow Angels! Skating! It’s also just been released bundled with two of Jackie Lau’s other Christmas novellas – One Bed for Christmas and Second-Chance Road Trip in an anthology called There’s Only One Bed at Christmas – so you might sense a bit of a theme going on there too…
That’s it – for now at least. Who knows, I may go wild and read a bunch more Christmas books this week that I just have to tell you about, but knowing me I might also decide that I’m too cold and over reading about non-covid Christmases and just read nothing but summer holiday romances! It has been known… But if you need more Christmas reading ideas, here is the 2020 post, the two 2019 posts – old books and new books, the 2018 post and both 2017 posts – new and not new.
A short post this week, but a festive -themed one. I read a whole bunch of books last week for my 50 states (and D.C.) challenge but there wasn’t a lot I wanted to write about – except this one which is not the first in a series and is a series I’ve written about before. But hey ho, rules are made to be broken at Christmas aren’t they?
Christmas in Paradise is the fourth book in Kathi Daley’s Tj Jensen series. The series is set at a resort on a lake in a town called Serenity. As you might suspect from the title, this one is set at Christmas and Tj is planning a big celebration but also waiting for the arrival of the man who says he is the real father of one of her sisters. Tj’s mother is dead – and she’s the guardian of her two younger sisters and is worried about what this might mean for their little family unit. When the new boyfriend of one of her neighbours is found dead in the grounds of the resort, Tj can’t help but try and find out who did it – to clear her friends’s husband of suspicion.
This is another Henery Press cozy crime from the period where they were really on good form. This isn’t too gory or thrillers – it’s a good mystery that runs nicely alongside the ongoing story strands for the main characters. I’ve read these wildly out of order, but this is the seventh in the series that I’ve read and they’re a very easy way to pass a few hours. And of course this has the added bonus of being set at Christmastime – and we’re just days away now.
Christmas in Paradise and the rest of the series are in Kindle Unlimited, which means they’re off the other digital platforms at the moment – unless you want the audiobook. But if you’re a KU member, it’s an ideal time to binge!
Six more states ticked off! I’m so nearly there now that it’s tempting to add more targets for the end of the year, but I shall valiantly resist the urge. It was a busy week last week and this one is going to be another one as I try to get everything done before the big day on Saturday. Wish me luck!
As mentioned yesterday, most of my books last week were to help finish my Read the USA challenge for the year. And among them were a bunch of books that were first in series and a couple that were pitching themselves at people who like the Stephanie Plum series. And today’s pick is one of them.
Davis Way has just landed a new job: working for the Bellissimo Casino’s security team. But when she starts work, she soon runs into her ex-husband, her doppelgänger and a rigged slot machine game. Investigating what is going on sees her stuck behind bars and struggling to clear her name, until her landlord rides to the rescue. But can they figure out who is trying to frame Davis and will they be able to clear her name?
So there’s a lot going on in Double Whammy, and you’re going to have to suspend your disbelief a little. Well a lot. Also it maybe helps if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of how casinos work and the rules about them in the US. It’s also doing a lot of series set up so expect to meet a lot of characters to keep track of. And it moves fast. There’s a lot of plot. But I enjoyed it as long as I didn’t think too hard about any of it! Davis is an interesting mix of smart and stupid, she’s quite snarky and can be a bit mean at times but I liked what the book was trying to do.
This first came out a few years back and started as Henery Press series from that era when I was having so much luck with their books. Looking back at my goodreads I see I read book six back in 2017 and enjoyed it but thought I was missing a lot of backstory that would have made me enjoy it more. The double cover here is because I discovered I had an earlier edition on my Kindle already when I borrowed the latest one from Kindle Unlimited and it grouped the two of them together on my iPad! I assume I bought the first.l book after I read book six, meaning to go back to the start and then promptly got distracted and forgot about it. Gretchen Archer has written ten books in this series now and all but the newest one are in KU at the moment, so once I’ve sorted out this pesky reading challenge I intend to read book 2 to see what happens next. And then who knows what might happen!
So as mentioned the Double Whammy is in Kindle Unlmited at the moment, which means it’s not on other vendors in ebook. I can see Amazon offering a paperback version, but I have no idea what sort of edition that is, and I’ve never seen one of these in a store in the UK (or the US when I was out there) so I suspect ebook is going to be the way forward.
Is this week’s list entirely dominated by books for the Read across the USA challenge? Yes. Was there some fun stuff there? Absolutely. Am I on track to finish it before the end of the year? I think so. As you were.